A canticle (from the Latin canticulum, a diminutive of canticum, song) is a hymn (strictly excluding the Psalms) taken from the Bible. The term is often expanded to include ancient non-biblical hymns such as the Te Deum and certain psalms used liturgically.
Roman Catholic Church
From the Old Testament, the Roman Breviary takes seven canticles for use at Lauds, as follows:
- On Sundays and Festivals, the "Canticle of the Three Children" (Dan., iii, 57).
- On Mondays, the "Canticle of Isaias the Prophet" (Isaiah 12).
- On Tuesdays, the "Canticle of Ezechias" (Isaiah 38:10-20).
- On Wednesdays, the "Canticle of Anna" (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
- On Thursdays, the "Canticle of Moses" (Exodus 15:1-19).
- on Fridays the "Canticle of Habacuc" (Hab., iii 2-19).
- On Saturdays, the "Canticle of Moses" (Deuteronomy 32:1-43).
These canticle take the place of a fourth psalm at Lauds. From the New Testament the Breviary takes the following:
- At Lauds, the "Canticle of Zachary" (Luke 1:68-79), commonly referred to as the "Benedictus" (from its first word);
- At Vespers, the "Canticle of the Bl. Mary Virgin" (Luke 1:46-55), commonly known as the "Magnificat" (from its first word).
- At Compline, the "Canticle of Simeon" (Luke 2:29-32), commonly referred to as the "Nunc dimittis" (from the opening words).
These three canticles are sometimes referred to as the "evangelical canticles", as they are taken from the Gospel of St Luke. They are sung every day (unlike those from the Old Testament which, as is, shown above, are only of weekly occurrence). They are placed not amongst the psalms (as are the seven from the Old Testament), but separated from them by the Chapter, the Hymn, the Versicle and Response, and thus come immediately before the Prayer (or before the preces, if these are to be said). They are thus given an importance and distinction elevating them into great prominence, which is further heightened by the rubric which requires the singers and congregations to stand while they are being sung (in honour of the mystery of the Incarnation, to which they refer). Further, while the "Magnificat" is being sung at Solemn Vespers, the altar is incensed as at Solemn Mass. All three canticles are in use in the Greek and Anglican churches. In the Breviary the above-named ten canticles are provided with antiphons and are sung in the same eight psalm-tones and in the same alternating manner as the psalms. To make the seven taken from the Old Testament suitable for this manner of singing, nos. 2-7 sometimes divide a verse of the Bible into two verses, thus increasing the number of Breviary verses. No. 1, however, goes much farther than this. It uses only a portion of the long canticle in Daniel, and condenses, expands, omits, and interverts verses and portions of verses. In the Breviary the canticle begins with verse 57, and ends with verse 56 (Dan., iii); and the penultimate verse is clearly an interpolation, "Benedicamus Patrem, et Filium . . .". In addition to their Breviary use some of the canticles are used in other connections in the liturgy; e.g. the "Nunc dimittis" as a tract at the Mass of the Feast of the Purification (when 2 February comes after Septuagesima); the "Benedictus" in the burial of the dead and in various processions. The use of the "Benedictus" and the "Benedicite" at the old Gallican Mass is interestingly described by Duchene (Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, London, 1903, 191-196). In the Office of the Greek Church the canticles numbered 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 are used at Lauds, but are not assigned to the same days as in the Roman Breviary. Two others (Isaiah 26:9-20, and Jonah 2:2-9) are added for Friday and Saturday respectively.
The ten canticles so far mentioned do not exhaust the portions of Sacred Scripture which are styled "canticles". There are, so example, those of Deborah and Barac, Judith, the "canticle of Canticles"; and many psalms (e.g. xvii, 1, "this canticle"; xxxviii,1, "canticle of David"; xliv,1, "canticle for the beloved"; and the first verse of Pss. 1xiv, 1xv, 1xvi, 1xvii, etc.). In the first verse of some psalms the phrase psalmus cantici (the psalm of a canticle) is found, and in others the phrase canticum psalmi (a canticle of a psalm). Cardinal Bona thinks that psalmus cantici indicated that the voice was to precede the instrumental accompaniment, while canticum psalmi indicated an instrumental prelude to the voice. This distinction follows from his view of a canticle as an unaccompanied vocal song, and of a psalm as an accompanied vocal song. It is not easy to distinguish satisfactorily the meanings of psalm, hymn, canticle, as referred to by St. Paul in two places. Canticum appears to be generic - a song, whether sacred or secular; and there is reason to think that his admonition did not contemplate religious assemblies of the Christians, but their social gatherings. In these the Christians were to sing "spiritual songs", and not the profane or lascivious songs common amongst the pagans. These spiritual songs were not exactly psalms or hymns. The hymn may then be defined as a metrical or rhythmical praise of God; and the psalm, accompanied sacred song or canticle, either taken from the Psalms or from some less authoritative source (St. Augustine declaring that a canticle may be without a psalm but not a psalm without a canticle).
In addition to the ten canticles enumerated above the Roman Breviary places in its index, under the heading "Cantica", the "Te Deum" (at the end of Matins for Sundays and Festivals, but there styled "Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini") and the: "Quicumque vult salvus esse" (Sundays at Prime, but there styled "Symbolum S. Athanasii", the "Creed of St. Athanasius"). To these are sometimes added by writers the "Gloria in excelsis", the "Trisagion", and the "Gloria Patri" (the Lesser Doxology). In the "Psalter and Canticles Pointed for chanting" (Philadelphia, 1901), for the use of the Evangelical Lutheran Congregations, occurs a "Table of canticles" embracing Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9, 10, besides certain psalms, and the "Te Deum" and "Venite" (Ps. xicv, used at the beginning of Matins in the Roman Breviary). The word Canticles is thus seen to be somewhat elastic in its comprehension. On the one hand, while it is used in the common parlance in the Church of England to cover several of the enumerated canticles, the Prayer Book applies it only to the "Benedicite", while in its Calendar the word Canticles is applied to what is commonly known as the "Song of Solomon" (the Catholic "Canticle of Canticles", Vulgate, "Canticum canticorum").
- At Morning Prayer:
- At Evening Prayer:
The nine Canticles are as follows:
- Canticle One — The (First) Song of Moses (Exodus 15) ( )
- Canticle Two — The (Second) Song of Moses ( )
- Canticle Three — The Prayer of Hannah (I Kings 2:1-10) KJV:
- Canticle Four — The Prayer of Habakkuk ( )
- Canticle Five — The Prayer of Isaiah ( )
- Canticle Six — The Prayer of Jonah ( )
- Canticle Seven — The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)
- Canticle Eight — The Song of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:57-88)
- Canticle Nine — The Song of the Theotokos (the Magnificat: ); the Song of Zacharias (the Benedictus )
Originally, these Canticles were chanted in their entirety every day, with a short refrain inserted between each verse. Eventually, short verses (troparia) were composed to replace these refrains, a process traditionally inaugurated by Saint Andrew of Crete. Gradually over the centuries, the verses of the Biblical Canticles were omitted (except for the Magnificat) and only the composed troparia were read, linked to the original canticles by an Irmos. During Great Lent however, the original Biblical Canticles are still read.
Another Biblical Canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (Vespers.), is either read or sung at
This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain. eo:Kantiko lb:Canticum ja:カンティクム nn:Bibelsk salme pt:Cântico